As Mailer’s friend from 1972 till the novelist’s death in 2007, Lennon was authorized by Mailer to write this biography and given unprecedented access to unpublished letters and papers. Thus he says with authority that Mailer’s “sixty years of writing can be seen as an untrammeled examination of all things sexual . . . from the funky odors of lovemaking to the inalienable joys of marriage and children, from promiscuity and free love to abortion, masturbation, and orgies.” So canine an interest in sexuality called for a certain amount of, um, field work, and Mailer never wearied of the task, even though Lennon seems to: After summarizing a number of his subject’s liaisons, he notes, “There were other affairs, but these were the most important.”
Mailer’s sexual adventuring is so epic that one loses a sense of scale. His sixth and last wife, Norris Church, apparently grew tired of counting (or caring), as well. In her memoir, she writes, “He said he had been totally true to me, except for one or two tiny one-night stands with old girlfriends when he was on lecture tours.”
As much as Mailer loved “the heat of a luxurious bed,” to quote Shakespeare, he also loved writing great, thick, square books — more than two dozen — as well as reams of journalistic pieces. His best-known novel is his first, “The Naked and the Dead” (1948); even Gore Vidal, whose public spats with Mailer would boost the profiles of both writers, asserted that every previous conflict had its big novel, and that Mailer had written the one for World War II.
Twenty years later, Mailer starred in his own “nonfiction novel” about the October 1967 Vietnam protest march on the Pentagon, “The Armies of the Night” (1968), which won both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. In his review, the always astute Alfred Kazin compared Mailer to “the best American writers of the 19th century [who] talked about themselves all the time — but, in the Romantic American line, saw the self as the prime condition of democracy.” Lennon says that “the country was undergoing profound change” in the mid-60s and that, for a period of roughly 10 years, Mailer was “its chief chronicler and interpreter.”